Friday, 22 May 2015

Lawrence in Arabia - Scott Anderson

Title: Lawrence in Arabia
Author: Scott Anderson
ISBN: 978-0-771-00768-2
Publisher: Signal Books
Pages: 577
Photos/maps: 42/5 

Altruism is not a principle of war nor is it a principle of international relations and it is with this pretext that one must approach the machinations and deal-making that typified the Middle East during the years leading up to, during and immediately following the First World War. Anderson’s book presents the reader with a road map of the toing’s and froing’s between the key actors and nation states of the period and the impact that it has had on the long term social and political development of the region. Certainly, the decisions made then have reverberated down through the decades and continue to be felt in the challenges that we are dealing with today. 

Anderson has been able to effectively cut through the Gordian knot of Middle Eastern societies and politics and break down the story into a manageable and traceable narrative. It is truly awe inspiring the degree of naked ambition (both personal and national) that manifested itself at the expense of all else during this period. The example of France refusing to sanction an attack on Alexandretta in 1915 (resulting in the Gallipoli Campaign) because of its fear that it would lose its post war claim to Syria (this despite the fact that militarily it made eminent sense to strike there) boggles the mind with both its hubris and expectation. 

Turk vs Arab, House of Saud vs Hussein, British vs French, Entente vs Central Power, Lawrence vs Sykes, Tribe vs Tribe, Egypt vs India the list is endless of the competitive agendas that were undertaken as the dance of the Middle East carried on. A consistent theme throughout was Lawrence and his role as guide, intermediary, policy maker and manipulator between all of the various parties. The book is not about Lawrence specifically, but the central role that he plays in this drama is key to the long term results. The author does a very credible job of providing the reader a clear understanding of the personalities involved, what drives them, their bias’s, strengths and weaknesses; none more so than Lawrence. Lawrence holds himself aloof from those around him and forges his own path regardless of the intent or direction from his superiors; a true loose cannon. In doing so, he also contributes to the tragedy that unfolds in the region even while he plunges into cynicism and disillusionment with the Great Powers.
This book was a finalist for the National Book Critics Award and it is easy to understand why. Anderson has drafted an eminently readable and, more importantly, comprehendible synopsis of the years leading to the collapse of the Ottoman’s, the intricacies of the war years, the betrayal of promises made to the Arabs and the realignment of the Middle East in the vision of the victorious Western Powers. Additionally, Anderson provides an extensive bibliography and notes section for further study. For those seeking an in-depth yet engaging backgrounder for the modern challenges of the Middle East, this is a book to be read.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Gallipoli: The Ottoman Campaign - Edward J Erickson

Title: Gallipoli: The Ottoman Campaign
Author: Edward J Erickson
ISBN: 978-1-78346-166-0
Publisher: Pen and Sword Books
Pages: 271
Photos/maps: 17/24 

Much of history is based upon perception and not necessarily upon reality; such is the case with the military forces of the Ottoman Empire. Viewed through the lens of “the sick man of Europe”, the march of Allenby into Jerusalem and the drama and romance of Lawrence of Arabia, it is easy to overlook or forget that the Army of the Ottoman’s was actually quite successful against the combined military’s of France and Great Britain. The successes of the Ottoman’s in the First Battle of the Dardanelle Strait (1915), Gallipoli (1915), Kut (1916) and the First and Second Battles of Giza (1916) are just as often credited to their German advisors as opposed to any integral capability. Erickson’s book, an operational review of the Gallipoli Campaign from the exclusive perspective of the Ottoman’s, does much to address this. 

The author begins his narrative with a detailed analysis of the years leading up to the 1915 campaign; the experience of some of the key commanders (both in terms of training and combat), the lessons resulting from the First Balkan War (1912-1913), the upgrades to the fortifications of the Dardanelle Straits, the doctrinal adjustments made to the Ottoman Regimental system and the training regime of the Ottoman’s for their army. The last two are of particular note as the Ottomans changed their regimental system from a square (four battalion) to a triangle (three battalion) system. This was found to be a much more manageable and responsive construct (and one in fact that the allies ultimately adopted in 1918). Additionally, the author discusses the fact that the Ottoman’s mobilized their forces in July, 1914 (a full three months before commencing hostilities) and this, given that they were not actively engaged in a land campaign until Gallipoli, provided them almost an entire year of work-up training for their forces. 

Erickson’s analysis of the Battle itself is insightful and detailed. Drawing upon primary source material from the Turkish archives, he is able to trace the actions and decision making of the Turkish commanders and the actual role that the German advisors (such as von Sanders) played. It is interesting to note that over the course of the campaign, there were series of individuals relieved of command by the Turkish General Staff including German officers. The reader comes away from this analysis with an appreciation of the complexity of the operational and tactical actions of the Ottoman forces. Advances to contact, transfers of authority, reliefs in place both night and day, combined support operations, multiple operational reorganizations of forces, a detailed reporting system, proactive command and decision making and dynamic leadership by the officer corps all speak to a modern and competent military structure and hierarchy. 

The author does not spare the rod in his analysis either and he is quick to point out the flaws and weaknesses of the Ottoman forces with equal clarity. This provides both balance and perspective in the overall analysis. He also provides discussion (although not to the detail or depth of the campaign itself) of the service support elements of the Ottoman forces operating on the Gallipoli Peninsula including medical, veterinary, supply and transport services. Finally, he also looks to the strategic level and the impact that operating within the most technologically advanced and infrastructure wise, the most developed part of the Ottoman Empire had upon the capability of the Ottoman forces within the region. 

Erickson provides numerous maps that are of benefit to the reader in following the actions of the Turkish forces as the Campaign unfolded; unfortunately, they are original maps from the Turkish archives and, as such, are very difficult to read and follow. Additionally, I would have enjoyed seeing more photographs of some of the key players in the Ottoman hierarchy such as Brig Esat Pasha and Enver Pasha. The bibliography is very extensive citing a series of memoires, primary (mainly from the Turkish military) and secondary sources that collectively provide the reader a plethora of options for further reading. The same may be said for the appendices citing command billets, ammo usage and orders of battle.
The author’s writing style is extremely engaging and easily maintains the reader’s interest. This is an operational study of this campaign and as such, does not contain many ‘personal experiences’ with some notable exceptions such as the valour of Cpl Seyit during the Battle of the Dardanelle Straits; this, however, is clearly identified by the author at the outset. This book would be an excellent addition to any library and serves as an outstanding counterpoint to the copious works on Gallipoli that speak only from the perspective of the Entente.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

A History of the Mediterranean Air War 1940-1945, Vol 2: North African Desert February 1942-March 1943 - Christopher Shores and Giovanni Massimello

Title: A History of the Mediterranean Air War 1940-1945, Vol 2: North African Desert February 1942-March 1943
Author(s): Christopher Shores and Giovanni Massimello
ISBN: 978-1-909166-12-7
Publisher: Grub Street
Pages: 736
Photo’s/Maps: 100’s b/w//6 

Building on the success of their previous volume in this series, Shores and Massimello have compiled a massive amount of data and detail into a book outlining the experiences of the varying combatants as they head into their second year of desert fighting. Written as a calendar compilation, they provide both a synopsis of the day’s activities and highlights of the unique or noteworthy events of the period.

Photographs are incorporated throughout the narrative providing a stunning visual representation for the reader and, what’s more, they are not centrally printed but co-located within the storyline they are representative of. Each of the discussions are broken down into an outline of the day’s events followed by a detailed rendition of the casualties of the British, Germans and Italian adversaries (broken down into unit and a brief synopsis of the engagement, results and crew status) and claims (broken down into columns signifying unit, crew names, attacking aircraft type and designator, damaged or destroyed aircraft type, location and time). 

The extent and breadth of the research is truly remarkable while the presentation is such that the book does not read as a dry rendition of facts but leaves the reader with a true sense of the adrenalin, terror and courage of the aircrew involved. The authors also incorporate stories of those aspects of the conflict that have received, relatively speaking, very little attention. Take for example their discussion of the unique JU-86 pressurized reconnaissance aircraft (with an operational ceiling of over 48,000 ft)  that operated out of Kastelli, Crete. These aircraft undertook high altitude reconnaissance over the Nile Delta and all along the northern coast of Africa. Specialized Spitfires from 103 Maintenance Unit specifically stripped down were able to intercept and neutralize this Luftwaffe capability. Another excellent example of this is the story of Capt J.E. ‘Jack’ Parsonson and his first hand related experience of combat on the 10 November, 1942 when he was involved in a harrowing dogfight with, ultimately nine ME-109’s. He ends his recollection with a German Lieutenant pleasantly offering him a cigarette and food; telling him sardonically: “Well, for you the war is over. Here, would you like this egg?” This after he had just slammed his Kittyhawk into the desert floor and evacuated it as the 109’s circled above. 

Shores lead a team of researchers each with a specific national affiliation (German, Australian, Italian and American) who have each contributed a phenomenal amount of detail and anecdote towards the final publication. The book commences with a synopsis of the tactical and operational situation in the desert at the beginning of 1942; it sets the stage for the narrative that follows. Additionally, a number of noteworthy veterans (such as Ernst Dullberg, II Gruppe JG 27, John Waddy, 4 SAAF, James ‘Stocky’ Edwards, 260 Sqn and Neville Duke 112 and 92 Sqn and many others) provide lengthy and detailed recollections about Squadron life and combat operations in the desert. The reader is provided an intimate introspection by these men of their experiences and the respect that they shared not only for each other but also their adversaries and ground crew. One is definitely left with the sense that war in the desert was not personal but a deadly business. 

Grub Street has published a book of outstanding quality. For those looking for a book outlining the experiences of the air war in the desert, it would be difficult to find a better source. This is volume two and volume three will focus on operations around Tunisia. While the book may be read in isolation from volume one, I would strongly recommend reading in order to get a real sense of the ebb and flow of the desert air war.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

‘Neath Verdun - Maurice Genevoix

Title: ‘Neath Verdun
Author: Maurice Genevoix
ISBN: 978-0-85706-208-6
Publisher: Leonaur
Pages: 171
Photos/Maps: 0

This book is a reproduction of the author’s diary running for the first few weeks of World War 1    (25 August – 4 October, 1914). It is not a book about the Battle of Verdun, but more the experiences, observations and thoughts of Lt Genevoix as he and his fellow soldiers grapple with the stresses and challenges of war for the first time in the region of the Meuse Valley. 

What makes this book quite unique is the degree of detail which the author recalls and remarks upon. Written in the immediacy of the moment, he is able to convey a sense of the frustration, fear, confusion, doubt, hope and comradeship that pervade these early days. One is struck by his horror at seeing soldiers with horrific wounds desperately seeking medical aid, the crushing exhaustion of endless marches in rain and mud, the joy at the prospect of a warm meal, the struggles with preventing melancholy at not receiving mail and the sad empathy at the suffering of wounded horses that he comes across. 

He and his soldiers are not hardened to war as of yet; they are still learning and struggling with the new reality of their existence and what it entails. The author is able to convey his concerns and fears of his own leadership and the terror of the prospect of combat and death (or even worse wounding). In battle, especially on the front line, ones focus is drawn into a very narrow field, bracketed by the soldiers within one’s immediate responsibility. This isolation and the necessity to make decisions under the stress of being exposed to maiming, death, exhaustion and fear is eloquently conveyed in Genevoix’s comments.
He is a sensitive, observant and thoughtful man, capable of seeing and capturing the essence of his surroundings and experiences through the written word in a way that many diarists fail to achieve. His work is short, but it leaves one feeling profoundly introspective and humbled at the massive undertaking that Genevoix and his soldiers were embarking upon. This is made all the more poignant with the reader’s benefit of hindsight and the knowledge of what the war would degenerate into. This book is well worth reading for junior and mid-grade officers as well as historians or those curious to get a bit of an appreciation of early field life of a combat command soldier.